NASA at 50 Oral History
Edited Oral History Transcript
Interviewed by Rebecca Wright
Washington, DC – 16 November 2007
Wright: Today is November 16th, 2007.
We are at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC for the NASA at 50 Oral
History Project to speak with Charles Scales, NASA's Associate Deputy
Administrator. Interviewer is Rebecca Wright with Sandra Johnson.
In preparation for the space agency's 50th anniversary, the NASA Headquarters
History Office commissioned this oral history project to gather thoughts,
experiences, and reflections from NASA's top managers. The information
recorded today will be transcribed and then placed in the history
archives here at NASA Headquarters where it can be accessed for future
projects. Do you have any questions for me before we begin?
Scales: No, let's get started.
Wright: All right. In April of this
year, you assumed this role of Associate Deputy Administrator, placing
you responsible for a number of things here at the agency. We'd like
for you to begin today by telling us what those duties are and how
you moved into this position.
Scales: I wish I could tell you specifically
what they are. They pretty much change every day. But generally speaking,
I serve as the deputy to the Deputy Administrator [Shana L. Dale].
Until you've actually worked here, you really don't have an appreciation
for what the Deputy Administrator and Administrator do on a daily
basis. So my job is to help fill in the blanks. I cover some of those
things that she just can't get to because of such demands on her schedule.
That can range from filling in for her at a speaking engagement at
a field center or conducting budget reviews. Making sure the Operations
Management Council (OMC) is scheduled and the agenda is appropriate
for what she's trying to get done. But if I could sum it up, I help
execute her vision and strategy for the things she wants to get done
during her tenure here at the agency.
Wright: Is there one thing in particular
that seems to be more memorable in your short term in this job that
stood out that you were able to step in and do?
Scales: Well, generally speaking, what
really is amazing is the pace which things occur here in the A Suite
[Administrator’s Suite]. It is most relentless. It's constant
and it's full. But actually helping work the corporate G&A budget
process has been I believe a tremendous help to Shana. Working with
the various mission support offices here in the building and helping
balance the budget needs across each of those mission directorates.
Also being an interface for her into the HSPD-12 [Homeland Security
Presidential Directive] project that's going on now throughout all
of government and helping to keep that in focus and in line, and working
with the different offices that's charged with implementing HSPD-12.
Wright: You've been with NASA for more
than 30 years and began your career as a cooperative education student.
Scales: Yes, actually 35 years now.
I actually started as a 19-year-old co-op student, a sophomore in
college at the [NASA] Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville [Alabama].
My first job was in telecommunications. I really loved that job and
thought if I could just stay there for 35 years I would have been
perfectly happy. Of course that turned out not to be the case. But
that's where I started. I went to school at Alabama A & M University
in Huntsville and was able to get the co-op job at Marshall, which
is also in Huntsville, so it worked out fine.
Wright: Tell us about your thoughts
on how NASA has changed from when you started three decades ago to
where you are now.
Scales: Well, the change has been tremendous.
It doesn't even seem like the same agency, except for the fact that
the people who worked in the agency then and now are in my opinion,
the best of the best. Now I say that with hardly any experience of
working anyplace else. So I try to be objective, but keep that in
mind, I've always been at NASA. Of course, if I had to do it all over
again, I would still only be at NASA. But it's never a day that goes
by, even now, where I'm just not really impressed with the caliber
of people that work in this agency and their belief that borders on
being cocky because we feel like we can do anything. Most of the time
I started at NASA right after the Apollo program. In fact, the major
program then was Apollo-Soyuz [Test Project] and then the [Skylab]
program. In those days a lot of my management focus was Center-specific.
I didn't have much insight into the Center-Headquarters relationship.
There was a lot of onsite work done. In those days we did more in-house
work, if we couldn't build it in-house we wouldn't buy it. One of
the big changes that's taken place is we seem to depend on contractors
for a lot more now. Sometime even to the point of having them tell
us what we want. But when I started, it was just the opposite. If
we couldn't build a prototype then we wouldn't contract for it. So
as time went on, we lost a lot of those kinds of skills. However,
I do see some of that coming back now. So that's a good thing.
Wright: What do you see as your role
in this current position? You told us about your duties. But your
role and even your expertise in doing what you've done in the past
in working to help with the vision of space exploration.
Scales: Well, my entire 35 years at
NASA has been spent on the mission support side of the agency, or
in past years, we called it the institutional side. When you're doing
that kind of work, it really helps, if you learn to appreciate that
particular role, that is the role of providing support versus working
directly on a particular program or project. Once you understand your
role, you can really have fun working in mission support organizations
because you're not limited to supporting one program. You're supporting
all of the programs, be it human space flight or science or aeronautics
or what have you. So to me, it's the best side of the agency to work
Wright: What are some of the lessons
learned that you've picked up along the way that will help you meet
Scales: Well, in the early days working
at Centers, Centers knew what would be needed in the future. They
had to figure out ways to keep some under used facilities funded,
even when Headquarters might not agree. But what I've seen happen,
particularly with the current Administrator, is an appreciation for
that, even to the point of identifying facilities that are not fully
subscribed now and coming up with a way to fund those from an agency
perspective. A program called SCAP (Strategic Capability Asset Program),
a strategic view to look at undersubscribed assets, get the funding
to keep them alive so they will be available in the future. So it's
gone from a Center look at figuring out a way to do that to a more
strategic approach at the agency level. So I think that's been really
Wright: Budget must play an important
part of how you get things done. Would you talk to us for a little
bit about how budgets do impact what you do and how they can be impacting
what you're planning on in the future?
Scales: Again in the early days I can
remember dealing with budgets twice a year, the initial budget and
one update. Now budgets are 365 days a year. You're either planning,
executing, modifying, changing, adjusting, or moving dollars around.
Of course recently we hardly ever go into a year where we actually
have a budget. We're constantly operating under a Continuing Resolution,
and it makes it awfully difficult to manage when you're not sure what
your final budget is going to be in an operating year. But you learn
to work your way through that. It is time-intense. You learn to figure
out what the highest priorities are of the agency and try to move
dollars into those areas. But when you don't know what your final
budget is going to be, it's difficult to plan. As you know we're at
a point now where we're going to retire the Space Shuttle in a couple
years. Ares [launch vehicles] won't be ready for a few years later,
and there's this gap where we have to depend on another country for
access to [the International Space] Station. Not a good position for
a spacefaring nation to be in, but it all has to do with budget priorities
for the country.
Wright: How much of your role is involved
in gathering that information from the different aspects to give to
Ms. Dale and then on to OMB [Office of Management and Budget]?
Scales: Well, I chair a monthly budget
performance review for Ms. Dale for the mission support organizations,
where we actually look at how the organizations are performing against
the budgets they have, and try to watch for trends to see at what
point we need to shift dollars from one organization to another, to
see if we're headed in a direction where we may go over the cliff
on some aspect of the budget, to make sure we don't get to a point
where we have to do something hurriedly. So it's constantly watching
the aggregate. Organizations focus on their piece of it, but someone
has to pay attention to the total. That's a function I try to help
Shana keep an eye on.
Wright: You've had the opportunity to
spend your career with NASA, so you've gotten a chance to see it grow
over the last 35 years. What do you believe NASA's role is for society?
What do you think it's here for?
Scales: Well, in the history of the
world, those nations that have grown have always been explorers. NASA
for the United States is the one agency charged with exploration.
We don't know what's out there, but we believe that it’s our
charge to try to find out. As we attempt to find out, as we go on
those paths, there are all kinds of things that we discover. The benefits
that we've gained for society as a whole over the last 50 years are
just frankly immeasurable. They will have impact on society for as
long as there is a society. Just the challenge itself has been so
inspirational for not only the United States but for people everywhere.
I think going forward we will continue to play that role. As the President
[George W. Bush] said, it's not an option we choose. It's a desire
written in the human heart. Someone is going to do it, why not us?
Wright: NASA has so many aspects to
it for exploration and for science and aeronautics. Do you feel, especially
now in this position, that aeronautics will still continue to play
a part in the future as well as science along with human exploration?
Scales: I do. I think our role in aeronautics
is sometime underappreciated. I think when the flying public goes
to Grandma's for Thanksgiving, they don't really have a full appreciation
for what NASA has done to improve air travel and the safety involved
in air traffic management and materials used to build aircraft, and
deicing technology. All of those things NASA's played a tremendous
role in. Maybe the public shouldn't say, “I feel better about
going to Grandma's because of what NASA's done.” But NASA's
role in aeronautics has been good. When I worked at the [NASA] Glenn
Research Center [Cleveland, Ohio] I used to love going down to the
deicing tunnel where they do research on the impact of ice forming
on the wings of aircraft and the proper way to deice aircraft. I think
people don't really relate that to NASA research.
Wright: You've worked at two different
Centers as well as the Headquarters. Then you've worked in those different
areas within the NASA agency. What do you feel are the characteristics
of NASA that are at all three? Two very different Centers and then
the Headquarters operation? Then what are the differences of working
in the different places?
Scales: Well, as you know, I spent most
of my early years at Marshall, which is an R&D [Research and Development]
Center involved with the development of the propulsion elements for
Apollo and the Shuttle program. It has some operational responsibilities.
It's a rather fast-paced Center. Lots of things going on. Lots of
different programs. Not only just in human space but a lot of science
work as well. I enjoyed working there. Glenn, as you know Glenn is
a Research Center, and I guess the nature of research itself is somewhat
slow and methodical. So that's something you notice right away. It's
not good or bad. It's just a difference you notice, that the pace
of things seemed to me to be a lot slower. But you have to understand
that is the nature of research. But I really enjoyed working there
and seeing the difference.
Wright: How is it different working
at the Centers than it is at the Headquarters?
Scales: It doesn't even seem like the
same agency. [Laughter] I always try to describe it when I'm talking
to groups, when you work at a Center and you get frustrated, you can
always go visit a laboratory where an engineer or scientist will show
you hardware, and tell you what they're doing, and if they are on
schedule, and let you see some of the research results.
But when you work here, there is no space hardware in the building.
So you don't have that kind of release. But what you do have is a
much better appreciation of the role that the folks here in the building
play. I used to think at a Center that all the work that flowed from
here to the Centers was just a pass-through. That’s not the
case at all. The folks here turn around a lot of work. A lot of the
demands we get from [Capitol] Hill, OMB and GAO [General Accounting
Office] are worked here at Headquarters.
But I wish there was a way for more Center people to spend some time
here, and for people who've only worked at Headquarters to actually
go and spend some time working at a Field Center. I think they both
would appreciate each other a lot more. I think the route I took by
working at Centers first and then coming here has been a tremendous
help, because now when we're working on a policy, I actually understand
the impact it's going to have when it gets executed at the Centers.
So I think that's been good, and a perspective I bring to Headquarters.
Wright: Tell us why you would encourage
someone to come to NASA to work.
Scales: To NASA the agency?
Wright: Yes, the agency.
Scales: Well, where else can you work
where there is a mission like the one we have? Again, I may feel that
way because it's the only place I've ever worked. But I don't think
that's it. Challenging and exploring the unknown and trying to figure
out if we can we live in other places other than Earth, and how we
get there, the research we do, having a permanent presence in space
on the Space Station, to me that should be encouragement enough. But
the benefits that goes back into society, I would argue that we play
a greater or as great a role as any other agency in all of government.
It's simply an exciting place to work. Again I go back to the people
that work in this agency. Extremely bright and always willing to help,
and take on any challenge.
Wright: Well, I pretty much have concluded
my thoughts to share. Is there anything else that you would like to
Scales: First of all, I really appreciate
what you're doing here. I'm glad someone actually thought about doing
this. Because NASA is a baby compared to a lot of agencies. But what
a tremendous achievement for 50 years. I think that should be recorded
somewhere for future generations so that they may get interested in
trying to figure out how we accomplished so much and who were some
of the people that worked there. So I thank you for what you are doing.
Wright: You'll get to be more involved,
and they all do something different, and JPL [Jet Propulsion Laboratory,
Pasadena, California] going off to Mars, and of course [NASA] Kennedy
[Space Center, Florida] where you'll have more and more chance to
go down and see the launch of the new vehicles.
Scales: Yes, and another great aspect
of this job is you're sitting around the conference table with the
mission directors, and you're talking about things like, “Well
there is a dust storm on Mars. The robots, they're in a failsafe mode
now waiting for the storm to go, then we're going to send them down
in the crater.” You talk about that as if it's something right
outside the building. We're talking about things on Mars, and how
they can reprogram the software and tell them what to do. Where else
can you work and have those kinds of discussions?
Wright: I don't know. It's a good thing
Scales: Thank you very much.
Wright: Thank you so much.